The latest escalation in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia re-ignited a heated policy debate in Moscow on what should be the Kremlin’s stance in the conflict. Significantly, Russia’s policies vis-a-vis Tbilisi and the renegade authorities of South Ossetia are being sharply criticized by both the hawks and the doves within Moscow’s analytic community. The proponents of a forceful approach toward Georgia argue that Russia is wasting precious time by ignoring the growing aggressiveness of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who seems bent on subduing the secessionist territories. Moscow’s shrinking from taking a resolute action, they maintain, emboldens the Georgian leader and prompts him to make ever more brazen steps that endanger Russian strategic interests in the Caucasus. Meanwhile, local opponents of neo-imperialism point out that Russia’s interests are best served by seeking a speedy settlement of the South Ossetian conflict and by putting an end to the contraband flows across the Russian-Georgian border separating Russia’s region of North Ossetia and Georgia’s rebellious enclave.
The recent shoot-outs in South Ossetia — including the shelling of a prominent Russian lawmaker’s motorcade — coupled with President Saakashvili’s bellicose statements pledging to protect Tbilisi’s territorial sovereignty at all costs prompted Russian analysts to revisit the issue of how effective is Moscow’s Caucasus policy. It would appear that the Kremlin’s current stance in the South Ossetian conflict satisfies neither the hawkish security experts, who hold that Russia’s key strategic goal is to maintain the status quo (i.e. a weakened and fractured Georgia), nor the analysts advocating accommodation with Tbilisi. The across-the-board criticism of Russia’s policies in the South Caucasus likely testifies to the existence of considerable political infighting in Moscow decision-making centers and to the Kremlin’s inability to shape a coherent strategy in a geopolitically vital region.
“Russia hasn’t decided yet which course is more advantageous — to help achieve the comprehensive settlement of the South Ossetian conflict or [to freeze the conflict] by pursuing ad infinitum the policy of preventing Tbilisi and Tskhinvali from going to war,” notes the liberal defense analyst Alexander Golts. A commentator from the opposite political camp echoes this view. “As far as I understand,” says Mikhail Alexandrov, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of the CIS, the “Russian leadership doesn’t have a single [unified] opinion on the issue [of South Ossetia.]” “By all appearances,” Alexandrov continues, “Vladimir Putin will now have to take a decision on whom to support — [Russian] patriots or defeatists.”
According to Alexandrov and other Russian hawks, the Kremlin is currently pursuing a weak “Gorbachev-Yeltsin course” that results in “ceding Russian geopolitical positions in the post-Soviet space.” Russia has already lost Ajaria, these commentators bitterly point out. Now Moscow is being snubbed by Tbilisi in South Ossetia; then will follow Abkhazia. To reverse this pernicious trend, Russia’s “patriotic experts” contend, the Kremlin has to be much tougher with Saakashvili, whose behavior is “insane,” “aggressive,” and “expansionist,” in the words of Viktor Militarev, president of the Institute of Development Foundation. “The key thing is that, under given circumstances, Russia shouldn’t be afraid to act resolutely [in South Ossetia],” Militarev asserts.
Russian hawks hold a general assumption that stabilizing Georgia is not in Moscow’s interests because of the utterly pro-Western policy of the new leadership in Tbilisi. This thesis, however, is questioned by a group of Moscow liberal commentators. Even if Saakashvili leans towards the West, they argue, his cooperation with the United States cannot be too harmful for Russia. Neither the United States nor the European Union are prepared to get too deeply involved into the affairs of the South Caucasus, the argument goes. The irritation caused by the presence of a limited number of Western military instructors in Georgia, Golts contends, cannot be compared with the possible damage to Russian interests should the South Ossetian conflict get out of control. The latter scenario would likely create thousands of refugees, bands of marauding thugs, and eventually endanger the lives and property of the residents of Russia proper. Moreover, the liberal commentators continue, yet another war in the Caucasus may well detonate an explosion in the entire region. “Isn’t it a too dear price for the imperial desire to divide and rule?” asks Golts.
Other analysts point out that supporting Ossetian independence would contradict President Putin’s own anti-separatist policy in Chechnya, and that openly facilitating contraband trafficking undermines his “rule of law” rhetoric as well as the Russian economy.
As Yulia Latynina, the respected analyst at Ekho Moskvy, notes, if it turns out that in South Ossetia Russian troops are “the feudal ruling class collecting tribute from the transit of contraband,” they will lose their status of peacekeepers in the eyes of the international community. (Kreml.org, August 4; Izvestiya, July 31; Trud, July 24, Ezhenedelnyi zhurnal, July 19; Moskovskyi komsomolets, July 15; Strana.ru, July 15, 19; Moscow Times, July 13.)